Monday, May 21, 2012

Grieving and Fun Funerals (?!)

Dear Diary,
The universe has been begging me to share my thoughts on the subject of death.  They say it is part of life... and now it’s a part of my blog.  (I never really planned to write about death.)  I have been to 5 funerals in the last couple months.

Dealing with the News Initially

Sad and shocking news came recently in many forms- I saw on facebook that an old high school friend passed away.  I got a text from my brother that his best friend’s Dad passed away. I got a phone call from my sister that our uncle unexpectedly died.  I heard word of mouth about the passing of my friend’s grandma and a phone call about my brother in law’s grandpa. Also my best friend’s Dad died late last year.  Thoughts rush through my mind as I hear the news: When was the last time I saw them? Talked to them? Memories flood in.  Who was closest to them and how might they be feeling?     

What do you do when you find out someone has passed? Personally, I get on the phone with my sisters. I want to know the why and the how and what can I do? What should I do?  I look up facebook statuses and find old photos.  And then I wait to hear about what services are being planned- where can I go to gather with others who also knew the one who passed away or their loved ones?

When we recently heard that my uncle Vinny died, I got on the phone will all my sisters. Everyone got together at my aunt’s house that night and then again at my mom’s a few days later.  Everyone was exhausted by the news but we had to be together.  We told stories. We cried but I think we laughed twice as much.  That’s what he would have wanted.  Messages, posts and phone calls were flooding in from near and far about how much Vinny would be missed.  All the reminiscing helped my Uncle Matt (his brother) write one of the greatest eulogies ever.  We started to wonder if Uncle Vinny knew how much everyone loved him- his always positive, always amazingly helpful nature!  How would we fill the void of his being? His doings?!


The grieving process is complicated and often surprising.  There are many variables to the how you may deal with death.  It depends on how you were raised to think about it.  It depends on what your family does to deal with it.   It depends on what you believe happens after death.   It can depend on the life that the person led and the nature of your relationship with the individual.  It doesn’t always matter how close you were currently or whether you talked to the person recently or not.  It’s more about the way their life touched yours.  Grieving is about dealing with the idea that you won’t ever be able to see them again in the flesh.  I think it is important to allow yourself to go through the grieving process.  Put yourself in the position to address feelings you have in relation to the death you are dealing with.  Don’t hold back tears. Don’t force them. The harsh reality could hit ya later- like a mac truck when you least expect it.  Grieving can come out in weird ways over the course of time.  It can be shown as sadness, anger, anxiety, depression and other unusual behavior.    

Many times we have to think about things we wish we would have done or said.  We think about what we could have done differently or wonder if we could have avoided the tragedy.  I encourage you to talk about it. Write about the good times, squash the bad times.  Think about the lessons learned from that person’s life.  What is the legacy they left behind?  Share with others what you are thinking as it will help you through the process and might help them deal too.  Identify your feelings. Deal with them- find peace with them.  Death almost always makes me about how much we should cherish every moment we have.  It reminds us to show our love, speak our love to the ones we love.

Talking with Kids

 My kids are only 3 and 5 years old and already they’ve been witness to quite a few people’s funerals.  I usually explain it as simply as I can. “I have some sad news to tell you guys.  Uncle Vinny died.  He must have been sick but he didn’t really know how sick he was. We won’t be able to see him anymore BUT we have GREAT memories about him.  We shared great times with him.  All of our great thoughts about Vinny will live in our hearts and we can think about him and talk about him whenever we want to…  What is the greatest things you remember about Uncle Vinny? When did you guys have the most fun?  Do you want to write a card for Granny?- She will really miss him since they spent so much time together and he took care of her.” 

My kids have come with us to their great grandparent’s funerals and to the funeral home a few other times during visitation hours.  We talk about it beforehand.  It’s not usually a big deal- just another party to them.  Some people might argue but personally, I think that is okay to bring the kids along.  They bring joy and new life to an otherwise sometimes sad atmosphere.

Attending the Visitation/Funeral

For the funeral of my old high school friend, I was experiencing grief but I wasn’t anywhere near the inner circle of family and friends whose daily lives would be affected by his death.  Even so, I was so saddened that he died at such a young age and so unexpectedly.  He left behind his wife (who I knew well in high school) and 2 young boys. I knew I had to go to the visitation.   

I was talking on the phone to a friend of mine about meeting at the funeral of our old high school friend. My friend was really uneasy about going to the funeral home.  He wasn’t sure what to say, what to think, what to wear or how to pay respect.  He had only been to 1 other funeral in his whole life.  All of a sudden I felt like an expert.  I started to talk about how our family usually handles funerals. I explained that my parents always told me that the funeral is really for the people who survived.  We gather to reminisce and talk about our memories and feelings.  I explained that he will be able to read the room as to how the family wants people to pay respect.  Some funerals have a quiet whispery atmosphere… “I’m so sorry to hear.” Hugs, handshakes, sign the guest book, say a prayer.  Other times, the room is full of people talking in a lively manner.  Family is smiling, embracing, singing and telling stories.  Our family tends to do the latter.  Our eyes are red and puffy but we celebrate. 

My friend said, “I wasn’t that close to him.  I haven’t even seen him lately but I feel like I should go.”  I explained to my friend, that if any part of him wants to go, he should.  It is nice to go and talk with other people that are there.  Reminisce on good times with the person who passed and talk about the wonderful characteristics that you remember best about that person.  Go to the funeral to celebrate his life… that is paying respect.  The family will love to see all the people coming to support them, even if you don’t talk to any family.  I told him all this and he told me shared with me later how helpful that perspective was.

Showing your Support

A lot of people send flowers. Funeral arrangements are beautiful BUT they are big, hard to transport back to people’s houses, they are expensive and they die.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate flowers but I think there are sometimes betters ways to show our love and support. Here are some ideas.

Donate to a charity

Many people specific a charity to donate to in lieu of flowers.  If not, you can make a donation and write the family a card.   

Donate Food

Families who are grieving a lost one and planning the arrangements are often too busy to cook.  It is always nice to send a platter of veggies, cheese/crackers or lunch-meat. Edible Arrangements (fruit on sticks) are so nice and yummy! They can share all of this with guest or take it home to enjoy. Homemade frozen dinners are a good idea that will come in handy in the weeks to come. 

Special Talents?

What service do you do well that you could offer? Could you put together the photoboard? A video? Are you good at putting together slideshows? Do they need a hand moving things? Carrying/cleaning?

Donate Music

We have a friend who plays the violin. We hired him for one of our friends.  My mom plays the recorder and sings in a choir.  She has offered this to services.  

Check in LATER

There is a lot of initial shock and commotion when someone passes away.  I can imagine that when things settle down is when sometimes reality sets in.  Do something for the family after the fact- life goes back to “normal”.  Send a card… make a donation, give a little thoughtful gift… a week later… a month later… a year later.

Planning the Celebration

As I have already explained, our family chooses to celebrate the life of the person who passed away.  The funeral/memorial services really exhibit this idea. I’ve done a lot of event planning and a Good FUN funeral isn’t much different.  You have to pick the date, time, location, invitations (word of mouth), music, food, drinks.  For my Papa’s funeral and my Uncle Vinny’s we had a Catholic service complete with great storytelling and musical ensembles.  Matt told his life story and my mom’s choir sang. Brothers and sisters read from the bible and the grandchildren all sang alongside a guitar a family favorite “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be”.  The kids brought flowers down the aisle.  Afterward, we gathered for ice cream and cookies and a photo slideshow!  Celebration! 

Things I just don’t get!

All that being said… Now I will share a couple of my personal opinions, areas of confusion and idea. I hope this doesn't seem insensitive- but I happen to think that many times we are giving into the peer pressure of tradition and there is a better way.  I think that a lot of the traditions, protocols and expectations for the mourning family aren't right. I realize that a lot of rituals were born out of religious and ancient traditions.  Most people don’t want to plan ahead or talk about what-if-I-die scenarios so all of the decisions for what happens next happen in a pressured, stressed and rushed time-frame.  Loved ones of the person who passed away feel a tremendous responsibility to honor their loved one with proper and accepted activities AND all of the decisions need to be made VERY quickly under sad (sometimes shocked) circumstances.  They say the funeral business is very lucrative one and I can imagine why… impulse buys and pressure shopping.  I can only speak for the services that I have witnessed.  Mostly they have been Christian-based arrangements in Midwest suburbia... I’ve also seen Jewish and Chaldean services as well but I wasn’t very close to the family.    But I would love for some things to change or someone to help me understand it.   

Laying out the body? Is that necessary? Many of my family members have chosen for their organs to be donated and for their bodies to be cremated.  Donate your organs... save a life:  It just makes more sense to me.  Also, in that case, there isn’t as much of a rush to get the celebration planned.

Funerals and Memorials Luncheon Should be a Potluck! I think it is so nice to get together and grieve and celebrate.  BUT I don't see the point that a grieving family should feel pressure to plan a big luncheon and pay for it!   (many can't afford it.) If I am invited to the luncheon, I go assuming that this this is the way they want to celebrate- but a part of me feels a little guilty or thinks about leaving the kids at home.  Wouldn't it make more sense for the lunch to be a potluck?  I'd be happy to bring a dish to pass.)